You've likely heard a lot about cowboys so far this year, what with all the buzz — Oscar-related and otherwise — surrounding Brokeback Mountain. But cast aside your visions of Heath Ledger and his clenched jaw for a second, because this year's festival boasts two real-deal cowboys who'll be taking to the stage to introduce audiences — through verse and song — to life on the frontier.
Hailing from Alpine, Texas, in the southwest of the Lone Star state, Joel Nelson and Michael Stevens are both working cowboys who have toiled on cattle ranches for most of their lives. But there's more to them than their Stetsons; Stevens is a skilled guitar builder, singer, and songwriter, and Nelson, who has a degree in forestry and range management, has earned a Grammy nomination for his CD, The Breaker in the Pen, the only recording of cowboy poetry ever to achieve such an honor. Of the collection, Baxter Black — probably the most famous poet of the genre — has said "it raised the bar for cowboy poetry for a thousand years."
For Nelson, who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division, poetry was a creative outlet before it was a profession. "I started writing poetry in 1969 during my tour in Vietnam," he recalls. "It's been a little over 20 years that I've been writing it seriously, though — writing stuff I didn't mind performing."
In addition to participating in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering in Prescott, Ariz., and the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in his hometown of Alpine, Nelson — who is published in many anthologies of cowboy poetry — won over Brits in Rothbury, Northumberland, when he was invited across the pond to be poet-in-residence. In addition to performing for enthralled audiences — a cowboy hat is a rare sight in the small town west of Newcastle, it seems — he worked with local school children, which, he says, was reminiscent of his days as a horse breaker on King Ranch in Texas and Parker Ranch in Hawaii. "Working with young children is not that different from working with young horses," he chuckles.
Though most of Nelson's poetry is, he says, "based on my working experiences and my lifestyle as cowboy," you can expect to hear some familiar verse as well. "Sometimes I'll read some Rudyard Kipling, sometimes some Robert Frost," he says. "I have a lot of poetry committed to memory. Michael and I find that a lot of people who haven't really been exposed to poetry are pretty widely receptive to us. We're not just people reciting things or singing things; we do something they can relate to."
The hour-long performance consists of both Nelson and Stevens taking to the stage; in between the former's readings, the latter plays "old classic cowboy songs, a lot of which have Celtic origins — sea chanties recited by early cowboys," says Nelson. And spontaneity, it seems, is key. "Michael will do a song and then I'll follow with a poem," explains Nelson. "There's no set list or anything, we just feed off of each other. A piece I read might remind him of a song, or a verse he sings might remind me of a poem. We just take it as it comes."
What sets cowboy poetry apart from other genres is that it's defined by subject matter, rather than by structure or tone. Typical themes include the Western lifestyle, ranch work, and the landscape of the American West. And because the figure of the cowboy is such a prominent, romantic one — with celluloid representatives ranging from Roy Rogers to Ennis Del Mar — Nelson and Stevens take it upon themselves to act almost as ambassadors for their profession. "We try to present a very accurate image of who we are and what we do," says Nelson. "I think it'll be a fresh experience for South Carolina. People should try and come without any preconceptions — just come and enjoy an evening of poetry and music. I'm fairly sure that whatever the audience is expecting, they'll be surprised."
There's one thing you can count on for sure, though, if you're hoping Nelson and Stevens will look the part, with their ten-gallon hats and worn-in cowboy boots, you won't be disappointed. "Mike and I both dress the same way every day," laughs Nelson. "It doesn't matter what we're doing — working with horses or sitting up on the stage — the hat will always be on."
THE TRUE ART OF THE COWBOY POET: AN AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC SPECIAL EVENT • Piccolo Spoleto's Special Events • $20 • June 5, 7 at 8 p.m. • City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau St. • 554-6060